At times yesterday both map and guild chat (yes, I'm now in a large guild with actual people - more on that another time) rumbled with discontent. The key complaint seemed to be the amount of grind required to access Elite Specializations and Masteries. Most of it was the low-level grumbling of people who accepted they had to eat their greens before they could have their ice-cream but some of the angrier and more intemperate voices went so far as to suggest ArenaNet were guilty of bait and switch or even flat-out mis-selling.
I'm not going to endorse that point of view. It seems to me that most of the surprise, even shock, at what the expansion has brought came from people who'd paid little or no attention to anything other than the features that took their fancy. That the new skills and abilities were linked tightly to a new progression ladder had been made abundantly clear so there's no real excuse for blaming ANet for deliberate obfuscation.
On the other hand, I do have some sympathy for the players who feel they've bought something that doesn't quite match their expectations. I have to say that I thought I was paying very close attention during the long, long build-up and yet Heart of Thorns is almost nothing like I thought it would be.
For one thing IT'S NOT A FRICKIN' JUNGLE!!!
Seriously, I don't like to yell, but really! The choice of a jungle biome as the backdrop for GW2's first expansion was probably the single most off-putting aspect of the entire affair both for me and for Mrs Bhagpuss, to the point that we had to grit our teeth and convince ourselves it wouldn't be as bad as we imagined.
Well of course it's not as bad. IT'S NOT A JUNGLE! It's a FOREST! Anyone can see that. It has massive, plainly deciduous, trees! They look like oaks and redwoods. It has bosky paths strewn with leaves and grassy glades with shade-dappled lakes and ponds. It's not a jungle just because you put some tigers in there!
For another thing, and I won't yell this time, it's really not that hard. Tina Lauro, MassivelyOP's regular GW2 columnist, was, I thought, lukewarm on HoT in her first impressions piece. In a bullet point baldly titled "No Soloing" she stated "Soloing is exceptionally difficult in the new zone and is close to impossible during certain events".
I would have to disagree almost completely with that description. It simply doesn't match my experience at all. I played for over a dozen hours yesterday, almost all of it in the new maps. I roamed and explored my way through Verdant Brink into Auric Basin and down to Tangled Depths. I wanted to get to the southernmost map, Dragon's Stand, but I didn't make it quite that far.
During that long and extremely entertaining ramble I was often alone. As I explored I fought the things that wanted to kill me and some that were just minding their own business, too. Mostly I won those fights but if it looked like it wasn't going to go my way I ran. Often I ran to a cliff, threw myself into space, unfurled my wings and glided to safety. Or more trouble. One or the other.
If I ran into events I attempted to do them. If I came across Hero Challenges I took them on. In almost every case, before long, other people turned up and joined in. Sometimes just one, sometimes a trickle, very occasionally a whole zerg.
Because this is GW2. That is what soloing is here. Soloing in GW2 is not "I hate people! I do everything meself, me!". Soloing in this game is mostly about not being in a formal party but being aware that you're still in a shared world, where someone will most likely be along any minute to give you a quick rub and get you back on your feet or throw a few fireballs over your head at whatever it is you're fighting.
I remember Orr at launch. Before the first, let alone the second (or was it third?) difficulty pass. These new zones don't hold a candle to Original Orr in terms of difficulty and what's more important they are nowhere even close to being as frustrating, annoying, irritating and downright unpleasant.
I realize Orr had its fans but the general view at the time was hostile to put it mildly, which is why so much got changed. And let's not forget Southsun Cove. The first new map added and how solo-friendly was that? Even today it's a place no-one much goes without a group or better yet a zerg.
No, the thing about the new Heart of Thorns overland maps is that they are an absolute explorer's paradise. Which, in my book, makes them perfect for soloing. Exploring is best done solo. Exploring with a partner is non-optimal but exploring with a group is just a recipe for arguments and disaster in my experience. Also for laughs and great anecdotes but most of that comes only after everyone's calmed down and got their cool back by doing something else.
To be fair, ANet did tell us this. They said the gliding and the jumping mushrooms would seem natural, gaining the masteries to use them would feel organic, and the verticality would make exploring a joy. They told us the event chains would bring the "jungle" to life and immerse us in the lives of the creatures that lived there. I didn't believe them. I apologize. It was all true. Well, true enough.
That's why I'm a satisfied customer right now. For once I'm getting what I want. It feels these maps have been made with my playstyle squarely in mind. Instead of Achiever maps with a nominal nod to exploring these are real, explorable maps with a few lifebelts scattered around for drowning Achievers to cling to.
Given the sheer complexity of these three-dimensional spaces I wonder whether the Achievers will ever be able to codify and organize them. So far it feels nothing at all like Silverwastes or Dry Top. Maybe, in time, there will be taxis on the LFG rank for the meta-events but unless the easier pickings elsewhere are nerfed to unprofitability I tend to doubt it.
On the contrary, I wouldn't be surprised to find much of the new land opened by Heart of Thorns underused, even neglected in a few months' time. Perhaps even a few weeks. People often say they want things to be more challenging but in the end they often cleave to convenience and even with all the Masteries I can't see anyone ever calling these maps "convenient".
All of which suits me fine. It feels every bit as solo-friendly to me as early EverQuest, which was where I learned to solo and love it. And every time I find myself downed and defeated, as I look for a waypoint to recover at, I can at least comfort myself with this thought:
"Could be worse. At least I'm not in a JUNGLE!"